Chester Borrows, former National MP for Whanganui, who died this week. (Photo: Stuff)

Former National MP Chester Borrows died earlier this week, aged 65. He’s been remembered as a passionate and pragmatic advocate for justice.

Dale Husband interviewed Chester in 2019, as he was leading a government advisory group on what reforms should be made to our criminal justice system.

Here’s what Chester said in that interview, about about why he didn’t believe tougher punishment is the answer.


I have no bloodlines or whakapapa to Māori. But I affiliate to Ngāti Ruanui who really took me under their wing when I turned up in their rohe as a local cop.

I couldn’t have done my job as a sole charge policeman in Pātea after the works closed without the kaumātua committee and the whole korowai of care that came with being one of their locals. So I consider myself a Pātea local and they don’t seem to object.

It was a complete awakening and education for me. I grew up in Nelson. In those days, there were no marae in Nelson. This was before the Wakatū marae. I was educated in a state school so, as far as I knew, all this marae stuff was back in Captain Cook’s day. I didn’t realise that they still operated today. Not until I went to Pātea.

We had a fantastic relationship there, but, of course, in Pātea, tikanga Māori permeates the whole community. And, if you want to be a part of it, you have to understand it, or else it’s not going to be a successful tenure. That’s where I got my understanding of things Māori — and I’m so grateful for that.

There were two or three lines to the brief [from the government to examine our criminal justice system.]

One of them was to have a public conversation around transformational change within the justice sector. So it was a given that it needed to change and not just be tinkered with. We needed to turn it upside down and shake the hell out of it.

And what we found was a confirmation of what a number of us on the committee have felt for some time — that the system was broken and needed a big fix.

There’s a real diverse group of people around the table. You’ve got abolitionists. You’ve got activists. You’ve got academics. You’ve got a politician. A victim advocate. A local lawyer. Strong Māori representation.

So we’ve got a big spread of people and we don’t all agree about everything. But we knew there needed to be changes, and we were committed to leading that conversation and to seeing change.

But it is big. And when you point to colonisation as a major factor, a lot of people are inclined to dismiss that and say: “Yeah, but that was back in the 1800s.”

The fact, though, is that colonisation is an ongoing process. You take away a group’s economic base, educate them in a foreign language, relegate them into housing that isn’t certain. Is it any surprise that, a few generations down the track, this Indigenous population has been corralled into low-decile, vulnerable communities, where they have the smallest voice in our democracy?

Take Pātea, for instance. Eighty percent of that town was on government support. They were the people who were vulnerable to centralisation, or work being moved offshore. And they find themselves unemployed, almost in a cyclic way.

It’s no wonder that they get into a cycle where they fail in education, they fail in health, and they fail in employment because their jobs keep moving. And they keep finding themselves in court.

Through the 1950s, when they had to move away from whānau support in the country and look for jobs in the urban areas, that’s when incarceration of Māori really took off. It went from under 40 percent in 1950, to a place now where Māori are over 50 percent of the prison population.

There’s another factor in the failure of the justice system — and that’s the collaboration of other government agencies. If we look back into the 1970s, for instance, the state took one in 100 Pākehā kids and put them into state care. But they took 14 in 100 Māori kids and put them into state care.

This is what we mean when we talk about ongoing colonisation. It was those government policies that affect outcomes for Māori today. And Indigenous people around the world in colonised countries have the same statistics.

I think some of it is well-meaning and paternalistic stuff. But it’s racism nevertheless. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s malicious or accidental or just ignorant racism. It’s still racism. And the outcome is just the same.

That tough-on-crime, broken-windows stuff started in New York in the early 1980s. What lay behind that approach was the idea that, if the police jumped on even a minor offence, it would prevent any more serious offences coming along later.

But it didn’t work. Initially, it sounded really good and the New York police reclaimed the city. Took it back, street by street. They treated it like a war. But, once that was done, all they’d really achieved was to set a new low.

And that sort of mentality was taken on around the world. It became a bit of a mantra and it was picked up by us. In actual fact, it’s just put a focus on the punitive aspects of justice. It doesn’t focus on being smart on dealing with crime and recognising what lies behind it.

The iwi justice panels and community justice panels are really good. But let’s allow them to deal with a higher level of crime. A rangatahi court on a marae is not an option, but it’s a smart option. Because you can stand in a youth court, look at your boots, and grunt — and that’s fine. But if you go on to a rangatahi court with your nannies already sitting there, you’re not going to get away with that.

Around the place, there are pockets of good delivery of service. And we’ve heard from the communities that they want the opportunity to do justice themselves.

Also, we’ve seen that, in places like Ōrākei, Ngāti Whātua are delivering justice for their people, and crime has dropped significantly. There’s been more rehabilitation of those who offend as well. So they can do it.

But you end up with an immediate pushback from the government agencies who are saying: “You haven’t got a proven track record, so we don’t want to devolve funding.” The fact, though, is that the government way isn’t working.

As Tracey McIntosh says, we’re getting “fully-funded failure” from the government agencies. It’s a failure if 60 percent of people who go to jail re-offend within two years. If you’re shovelling money into a system that delivers that result, it’s a failure.

Whereas, if you allow people to be a bit more innovative within their own communities, they’ll get better results. So why not devolve some of that funding to them? And don’t restrict them to 12-month contracts because you can’t set up a worthwhile programme if your future funding is uncertain. There needs to be an element of trust.

But some people spend a heck of a lot of time, government money, taxpayer money, measuring and evaluating things, over and over again.

They would’ve been far wiser to invest that money by giving it to those agencies and letting them strut their stuff.

Allow them to handle justice at that level. Try really hard to get the politics taken out of the issues and to make recommendations that politicians can’t disagree with. And address, for instance, the way the media reports crime, because there’s still the attitude that if it bleeds, it leads — it’s front-page stuff.

Another aspect is how we’re looking at victims and the way they’re treated as they move through the courts. And understanding that some of those victims have been victimised their entire lives and that their behaviour starts reflecting that victimisation by breaking the law.

For example, you can get a young girl who’s been sexually abused from 7 to 14. She starts taking drugs, associating with bad people, and committing crime. Half of us may want to say: “She’s no longer a victim. She’s an offender. So we don’t have to worry about her.”

Yeah, we do. Because, actually, she was a victim first. And until we start addressing what went before, we won’t be able to deal with what came later. When we look at who is in our prisons, we can see that the vast majority are people who’ve been victimised — and we need to understand that. So, there’s a lot we need to do about education as well.

A whole lot of people are living in the safest communities in the world, and yet they think they’re unsafe and they want to get tougher and tougher on crime. But they understand very little about what the causes of crime are.

When we were speaking to people, they were frustrated and they were upset. But all of them felt we could do a lot better. Among them were a number of the decision-makers who know that this is hard and that there are no easy answers.

But there are answers.

And we found that, within our communities, there were people doing excellent work. But they were having to do it in spite of all the rules and the policy. The people who were prepared to bend those rules a little bit — or maybe break a few — were getting great results.

So we need to empower those people working right at the coalface in their communities. Let them do the business.

And, as taxpayers, we need to recognise that it’d be a good investment for us to put some money there.

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